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Tick Talk

Buggin' out with Vermont State Entomologist Jon Turmel


Published July 30, 2008 at 9:01 p.m.


When it comes to summer pests, ticks and mosquitoes beat just about everything (even overstaying house guests). The blood-sucking critters can carry the life-altering Lyme disease and the potentially fatal West Nile virus — and now they’re plaguing the Green Mountain State in historic proportions. With such worries getting under our skin, Seven Days bugged State Entomologist Jon Turmel with some questions.

Seven Days: So, are the ticks worse than ever this year? That’s what I heard.

Jon Turmel: We’re getting more reports of ticks. We don’t actually go out and survey, but I’ve been here a little over 30 years, and this is the first time I can actually say I was in an area where I looked down and I had 30 to 40 ticks on my pants.

SD: Oh, my goodness. Where was that?

JT: [Laughs.] It was south of Wells along the Connecticut River. So. And the number of reports we’re getting are up.

SD: What’s the explanation for that?

JT: We don’t have one, other than maybe they just survived the winter very well. It was cold, but we didn’t get those killing colds, and we had a blanket of snow. It could be a combination of things. It could be that the populations are escalating, which is just a matter of time. I grew up in southern New Hampshire, and we never had ticks, and my family now can’t go out without ticks everywhere; it’s just progressing north. Something like the Lone Star tick — 10 years ago if we got one in the lab, we could with certainty say that that person came from the South, but now we’re seeing Lone Star ticks from people who don’t even leave the state.

SD: When you bring up winter — is this attributable to climate change in any way?

JT: I doubt it.

SD: So what could be the other reasons?

JT: We’re a very mobile society.

SD: Sort of like boats bringing zebra mussels onto the lake.

JT: Sure.

SD: What about other insects — are their populations increasing?

JT: They go in cycles. That’s a result of natural predators, parasitoids, diseases. Those cycles are still going on.

SD: So what cycle are we in right now?

JT: Something like [the] gypsy moth, we’re in the low end; forest tent caterpillar, which two years ago peaked, we’re now at the low end. That was because of parasitoids and diseases: the same thing with the gypsy moth.

SD: Going back to ticks, you’ve got the danger of Lyme disease . . .

JT: Well, from just the one species of tick, the black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick. We can identify it for them. We don’t test for Lyme disease; people would have to have that done independently. But, you know, if a tick has not been on a person for over 24 hours, realistically 36, they don’t have to worry about Lyme disease. Because it takes at least that amount of time for the Lyme disease to be transmitted. So the important thing is, if you’re going out and you know there might ticks in an area, check yourself. Tick checks are very important. Ten years ago we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but now, yes, you have to check yourself for ticks.

SD: What types of areas?

JT: It depends where you live. If it’s wooded, there could be white-footed mice, which are the primary reservoir for Lyme disease; there could be deer, in which case, yes, you could have ticks. Areas where it’s wooded, has shrubs, tall grasses — those are ideal areas.

SD: Beyond Lyme disease, what are the dangers?

JT: We have a case of woodchuck tick this year where they found triple-digit numbers that invaded a house, and that was a concern for Powassan virus. It’s worse than Lyme disease; it’s a lots more virulent strain.

SD: And what about other insects — black flies, mosquitoes?

JT: Well, there have been some localized storms that have created some issues with mosquitoes. It’s totally weather dependent.

SD: So with these recent rains . . .

JT: I’m just waiting for the calls.

SD: They’ll make it worse?

JT: Yes. Any time we have these rain events. I’ve seen them go from egg to an adult in five days. This water will just keep adding to it, to the breeding habitat.

SD: How much of a concern is West Nile?

JT: It’s always an issue. We’re monitoring it and testing for it. We’re also keeping an eye on Eastern equine encephalitis, and we watch Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire. When it gets close to our borders, we go out and trap for the species that might carry it.

SD: What are the most effective techniques to protect against mosquitoes?

JT: Light-colored clothing, long-sleeved shirts and DEET.

SD: What about those backyard zappers?

JT: They’re a waste of money. I can’t show you any scientific data that shows that it does work. DEET is the most studied product on the market.

SD: When can we stop worrying about this?

JT: When there’s a good killing frost, which is usually into November.

SD: Well, something to look forward to then.

JT: Yep. [Laughs.]

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